Skip to main content

Banjo Tinkering

There comes a time when you just want something different. Since we all can't own enough banjos to suit our varying tastes from day to day, a fact that our neighbors and loved ones no doubt celebrate, we must instead tinker with our instruments now and again to make new sounds.

My banjo needs a tonal makeover. Right now it is set up with Ome heavy strings, a thin goatskin head and a 5/8-inch bridge of medium weight, all on a 12-inch rim with a Dobson-style tone ring. There is also a swatch of duct tape under the bridge and a wad of plastic grocery bags wrapped with tissue paper stuffed between the head and dowel stick to mute harsh overtones.

Like many old-time banjo players, I'm always in search of the perfect "plunky" sound. However, I've come to the conclusion that stuffing the pot isn't getting the job done. While this practice cuts down on high-pitched brightness, it also kills the warm timbre associated with skin heads. Also, why have a tone ring if you're going to keep it from ringing?

Last night, I was playing around with just muting the strings at the bridge and got some good results. This led me to believe I should either wrap my strings in duct tape a la John Herrmann ...

Or I should get new strings. While I have liked the Ome heavies, I've grown bored of their sound. Today, I put in an order for some Chris Sands heavy strings.

In the past, I've tried various nylon strings, from cheap La Bellas to Aquila Nylguts, but I never found those strings quite to my liking. They always seemed too slack and sounded dull. Way back when we featured Jeff Delfield and his Deep Creek Strings banjos, he suggested trying the Chris Sands strings. They are thicker and higher tension than the previous nylons I've tried, so perhaps they won't be so floppy and dull.

Only time will tell if these strings provide the plunk I'm looking for or if I'm going to have to get a new roll of duct tape.

What's your preferred setup? Do you use steel or nylon strings? Skin or synthetic head? How much duct tape?


  1. I'd trade my first-born (well, almost) for that sound from John Herrmann's banjo. I had seen (and bookmarked) this YouTube video before, but had never noticed the duct tape on the bridge.

  2. I use steel strings because that's what I happen to have several sets of on hand. I did try Aquilla, and liked them. I likely will go back to them when I use up all the steel. My banjo has a 12" head, brass hoop tone ring, Fiberskyn head, Grover bridge and No Knot tailpiece. In the 11 years I've had it, the only thing I've changes is strings and what I stuff in it to play while Mrs. Wanda is sleeping. It takes a LOT of stuffing to keep her asleep! Bubble wrap, tanned possum hide, newspaper, small towel, larger towel. Current stuffing is a small pillow. When I leave the house with it, the stuffing usually stays home. I don't try to change the sound, that's what I fell for when I bought it. And that's what multiple banjos are for. Though finances aren't likely to allow me multiple banjos.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Master and Apprentice: Banjo Builder Workshop in Historic Peninsula, Ohio

The 191-year-old Peninsula, Ohio, provided the backdrop to a parade of pedestrians making their way from station to station across the bucolic village for Music on the Porches on Saturday.

Inside the close confines of Bronson Church, founded in 1835, a master and apprentice presented a free workshop on the art of instrument building. That master being the renowned banjo builder and artist Doug Unger and his former apprentice Mark Ward.

Unger and Ward began the workshop by playing several old-time tunes, discussing their work and the music, and taking questions from the audience. Unger then invited the spectators to step up to the front to see the instruments.

Highwoods Documentary Not a Lost Cause After All

So, once upon a time, I tried to drum up support for a crowdfunded documentary project about the Highwoods Stringband. I donated money to help out, and more than a year later I provided an update on the slow progress. Last I heard, there was some old footage of the Highwoods they were trying to acquire. It's been three and a half years now that I first heard about the project, and I still haven't received my DVD.

I figured that's the risk you take with these crowdfunded, Kickstarter-type projects. I had all but given up the documentary as a lost cause. Until today. If I managed to convince any of you to help fund the project, I felt it my duty to pass along this update directly from Highwoods mainstay Walt Koken.
"After several delays and setbacks, we, the members of the Highwoods Stringband and Mudthumper Music have procured the vintage footage and photos in cooperation with the original producers and put them into the hands of another videographer, Larry Edelman, in …

2016 Year in Review / 2017 Look Ahead

Well, it's been a minute, hasn't it? The last year has been difficult on many fronts. Playing music was no exclusion. The amount of time I spent playing banjo and fiddle suffered the most. I didn't blog much either, which you already knew. But it wasn't all bad. Here's a look back at last year and a look ahead to my goals for the year ahead.

2016 Notes
I have now been playing banjo for eight years and fiddle for four years. My focus remains on the fiddle, as I try to learn general technique and tunes. Time spent playing banjo was mostly to keep up with a handful of tunes I like most.

Playing Time: Due to increased work travel and other factors, my playing time was dramatically reduced in 2016. As mentioned before, I log my practice time in the quest to reach that fabled 10,000-hour mark. This last year was my lowest (by far) amount of time spent on banjo and second lowest time on fiddle.

New Tunes: Despite my reduced playing time, I worked through two fiddle instruct…